01/15/2013 12:13 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

Can the Cannabis Economy Be Ecologically Sustainable?

The future of sustainable cannabis agriculture might reside in the practices of a third-generation Emerald Triangle farmer known to his friends as Fuzzy. He indeed looked a good deal like Thorin Oakenshield. Based in Mendocino County, the 40-something's flowers are perennial top five finishers in California's Emerald Cup ("The World's Only Organic Outdoor Cannabis Competition").

When I asked him his secret on the soggy redwood-enshrouded Humboldt County deck outside this year's competition December 15, his answer was much more Gregor Mendel then Monsanto. "Local breeding and native soil. The guys that bring in bags of fake soil aren't ever going to win."

"Organic outdoor cannabis is our brand," says Tim Blake, who founded and produces The Cup, as it's known regionally. "This is what we do."

For many local farmers, some of whom farm cannabis alongside grandparents who were 1970s back-to-the-landers, the concerns of the modern outdoor farmer are still the concerns of every farmer since humans stopped hunter/gathering. Early autumn rains, for instance, threatening fragrantly flowering $20,000 plants with botrytis (a kind of fungus also called bud rot) a week before harvest.

Because of this isolation, prohibition, and now, cultural tradition, Northern California's remote Emerald Triangle is poised to provide a model for a sustainable post-prohibition cannabis industry. In particular, this model, which was institutionalized in a landmark cannabis farmer permitting program by the Sheriff's Department in Mendocino County in 2011, can provide a farmer-owned, outdoor cultivation playbook to counter some of the grow room-based models that are in danger of becoming institutionalized in the first U.S. states to re-legalize full adult use of the plant.

"This is part of the larger food revolution we're seeing everywhere," the overalls-wearing Fuzzy told me during what became a sodden farmer caucus during a break between speakers at the Cup, contemplatively stroking his red chest length beard. While thick, icy raindrops fell quite audibly from redwood eaves all around me, I thought about my own produce shopping preferences. I wouldn't buy a spear of supermarket hothouse broccoli when there's a local organic heirloom variety available at the weekend farmer's market.

This kind of conversation was the explicit reason why I had jetted into the ankle-soaking winter puddles and moss-covered power lines of Redway, Calif. to give my own talk at The Cup: I believe that figuring out how to keep the cannabis industry decentralized, farmer-controlled and sustainable once prohibition ends is a key piece in the "allow my kids to inherit an inhabitable planet" puzzle.

I'm a sustainability journalist and solar-powered goat rancher who's just reported just from the front lines of the Drug War for a year. We're talking about the United States' number one crop, already worth $35 billion per year, according to ABC News. We don't have the time or resources to initiate any more carbon intensive industries. The good news is that cannabis is now, in 2013, in the blueprint phase. I think we're three to five years from full federal cannabis legalization. That's enough planning time.

What can be done to make sure the planet's greenest industry is born Green? It's about incorporating sustainable cannabis methods no matter how and where the plant is cultivated -- and this includes the industrial side (hemp) in places like North Dakota.

If I weren't already driving on vegetable oil and being routinely outwitted by goats, I would have become aware of the sustainable cannabis imperative when Nobel Laureate Evan Mills, a researcher on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change team that won the prize, approached me after a live event I was doing in support of my recent book, Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution. As a follow-up project to his UN panel work, Mills had in 2011 published a much-discussed report on the energy demand of California's (mostly indoor-grown) cannabis industry (which he concluded is responsible for 3 percent of all of California's energy use).

Our email dialogue since meeting has been spirited: as a guy who has visited probably three dozen cannabis farms, both indoor and outdoor, in the course of my research, I find myself with notes on farming techniques that not only help with my own tomatoes and beans, but which represent the cutting edge of an agricultural sector that Michael Pollan describes as including "the best farmers of my generation."

Yet exchanges with Mills always force me to more critically ask questions like, "Is that farmer's drip irrigation technique really sustainable?" and "Does the Mendocino County, California locavore permitting program that worked so well locally scale to mass industrial sizes?"

Although I followed intentionally sustainable cannabis farmers in my book, I'd have to be blind not to be aware that a segment of the outdoor farming community in the U.S. and Mexico requires as much education as indoor gardeners do when it comes to issues like waterway diversion and pesticide use.

The truth is, most farmers here in the Emerald Triangle get it. A third generation Humboldt County farmer named Mike told me as he stared admiringly at the rows of finalist buds behind the glass display at the Emerald Cup's straw bale-lined Growers' Tent, "The plants adapt to the climate. Why wouldn't I use God's own sun instead of a generator?"

Case in point, this year's winner of the Emerald Cup grand prize (a trip to Jamaica), Leo Bell of nearby Laytonville (for his "exceptionally smooth, enticing and very sticky...nasturtium-scented" Chem Dawg strain, according to judges), noted in his victory speech that during the 2012 growing season (a region-wide vintage said to be the best in a decade and a half), "I watered by hand, and gave my heart to these plants, five (pause while choked up) hours every day."

Now, if all of humanity's agricultural engineers operated according to such principles, climate change would be a much more relaxed discussion. This moment presents the opportunity for the cannabis industry to chart the very best course, or the very worst.

On the dark side, you have the Drug War-inspired violent cartels, profiteers, and poison pesticide purveyors that prohibition economies create. On the positive side, think of the Doctor Bronner's Soap model, where organic and Fair Trade principles are embedded in every product (many of which derive from hemp) and the CEO makes five times the salary of the lowest-paid employee. This is the model that the farmers of the Emerald Growers Association trade group (EGA) are using as they brand the region's cannabis crop in anticipation of a time when busy moms in the Whole Foods cannabis section will be seeking "organic, fairly traded, local farmer-owned" plants for Sunday's Super Bowl party dip.

As for farmer Fuzzy's point about the importance of native soil, I can tell you after two decades of sustainability journalism that he is spot-on: when I visited a local cannabis strain developer named Rock on his coastal farm, he showed me that his technique basically involves crossing two promising strains and seeing if they like the local dirt. And Rock's strains have placed very high at past Emerald Cups.

The Emerald Triangle's barn-side genetics laboratories work. My year of touring cannabis farms has taught me that without question, no hydroponic set-up or garden store soil mix can approach the complex microbial soup found in a mature Emerald Triangle farm. These are the same regional conditions and knowledge of how to exploit them that long ago branded places like Champagne, France and Parmesan, Italy: you can't, by international law, call the same cheese from somewhere else by the name Parmesan. And only family-level farming allows the kind of tender loving care that results in such universally recognized branding. "Water your plants with a cup while singing to them" could never be taught at an ag school.

Will the Emerald Triangle farmer survive the inevitable period of instability and likely price drops which will follow the start of the Drug Peace era? "I think so," said Cup organizer Blake. "We're a culture."

The branding of this culture and its famous flowers is already underway. "We want people to associate the Emerald Triangle with top shelf cannabis the way they do Napa with wine and wine tourism," explained Tomas Balogh, board member of the EGA.

The worldwide post-Drug War cannabis industry train has left the station. Working against Emerald farmer organization is the longstanding cultivator fear that legalization will bring about the Coors or Marlboro version of cannabis production. And I think that concern is legitimate -- for the run of the mill farmer. But millions of consumers are going to be seeking the cannabis version of Fat Tire Ale. If the region's cultivators band together to aim for the microbrew aficionado, the EGA thinking goes, there's nothing to fear from Coors. Craft beer was a $7.6 billion market in 2010.

For the plan to work, sustainable practices have to be taught, followed and certified in the Emerald Triangle. Especially to newer and younger farmers. Even Fuzzy got serious for a moment when I asked him if, alongside his own efficiently drip-irrigated crops, he sees non-sustainable practices, such as river diversion, among his farming neighbors. "We do need standards," he admitted.

It's a small planet, and the EGA's Balogh says that cultivators have to prepare now to take advantage of the legalization free-for-all and emerge as the world's number one sustainable crop. "We don't have a choice with this," he says. "We have to get it right."

Doug Fine is the author of TOO HIGH TO FAIL: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution. His work from five continents is at .